Actantial model (Greimas)

Joanna Kwiat (2008: 43) suggests that the actantial model of narrative structure proposed by Greimas (1983) drew on at least four theories: Levi-Strauss’ theory of opposition, which states that a given concept A is impossible to comprehend without the equal and opposite concept Not A, and how A necessarily entails Not A, and thereby every possibility between; the syntactical functioning of discourse; the inventory of actants proposed by Vladimir Propp, which he called “dramatis personae”; and the inventory of actants proposed by Etienne Souriau, which he referred to as “dramaturgic functions”.

As Kwiat explains, in Greimas’ actantial model, there are six actants that form three pairs or oppositions: subject vs. object, sender vs. receiver and helper vs. opponent. These oppositions generate three types of relations: desire, which is felt by the subject for the object; knowledge, constituted by communication between sender and receiver; and power, realised through the agonistic struggle between helper and opponent (in relation to subject vs. object and sender vs. receiver).

These actants may combine. For example, there can be a duality of roles, in which one desires something in and receives something from the other who sends. Helper and Opponent may similarly combine with Subject, being at once the (conscious) will yet also the the (unconscious) resistance to act in fulfilling desire.

Conversely, a single actant may be instantiated with more than one actor, e.g. a multiplicity of helpers.

The actantial model, adapted from Greimas (1983), as diagrammed by Kwiat is as follows:

Semiotic square

References

Greimas, A. J. (1983). Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Kwiat, J. (2008). From Aristotle to Gabriel: a summary of the narratology literature for story technologies. Technical Report, KMI-08-01. Milton Keynes: Knowledge Media Institute, Open University, Available from http://kmi.open.ac.uk/publications/pdf/kmi-08-01.pdf [Accessed 8 October 2015].

Further Reading

If you are interested in pursuing further research into A. J. Greimas and his work in semantics, semiotics and narratology, it is worth having a look at Sign Systems Studies, Vol 45, No 1/2 (2017): Special issue: A. J. Greimas – a life in semiotics. It can be found at http://www.sss.ut.ee/index.php/sss/

edited 15 October, 2017 by Allan Parsons